Thursday 11 August 2022

Movie review: Freeway (1996)

A crime drama infused with dark humour, Freeway thrives on unexpected twists, but the surprises are blunted by cartoonish disorientation.

In Los Angeles, 15-year-old high school student Vanessa Lutz (Reese Witherspoon) comes from a white trash family and barely knows how to read. Her mother Ramona (Amanda Plummer) is a prostitute and her drug addicted step-father Larry (Michael T. Weiss) is sexually abusive. When both Ramona and Larry are arrested, Vanessa slips away from her social worker and starts driving north towards the home of a grandmother she has never met.

When her car breaks down on the freeway, Vanessa hitches a ride with the seemingly helpful Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland), who claims to be a counselor. On the long drive he starts asking increasingly awkward questions, then reveals himself to be a twisted psychopath and murderer of women. But when faced with a threat, the scrappy Vanessa is more than capable of fighting back.

A reimagining of Little Red Riding Hood with Oliver Stone as one of the executive producers, Freeway aims for an irreverent, anything goes vibe. A sun-drenched, vivid aesthetic enhances the fairytale-for-adults mood, and writer/director Matthew Bright rides the wave of his central character Vanessa all the way to extremes of cheeky violence. The wacky energy is unflagging and undoubtedly infectious, if often misdirected.

The plot intentionally toys with fundamentals but carries every intention of subverting the familiar. Vanessa is introduced as a survivor of a chaotic upbringing and the girlfriend of a drug dealer. In an early scene, she fends off Larry's latest sexual advances with impressive determination. Still, the extent to which this potential victim is willing and able to resort to physical harm is revealed only gradually, setting up a war of equals with Wolverton.

Bright does eventually carry this premise too far. Vanessa approaches indestructible status (as does Wolverton), robbing the movie of tension, and extreme bloodlust threatens her standing as a sympathy-deserving protagonist. The plot detours to a meandering women-in-prison stint, and a couple of detectives (Dan Hedaya and Wolfgang Bodison) are more inept than effective. Another shift finds Wolverton and his wife (Brooke Shields) playing the victims with no scrutiny. The final act hastily, and artificially, reverts back to Red Riding Hood origins.

At 20, Reese Witherspoon almost convinces as five years younger, and cuts through the increasingly wacky action by channeling a combination of Bugs Bunny and the Tasmanian Devil. When it comes to fairytales, Freeway is happy to explore the corkscrew off-ramps.

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